Messy Truths about White Trump Voters

Van Jones, I would like to personally recognize you for your undertaking with concern to your exploration within the minds and souls of white Trump voters within your recent televised CNN series entitled, “The Messy Truth.” I get the intellectual journey you are on and appreciate your determination. I truly do. Unfortunately, in regard to the often glossed over purview of recent advanced racialized assessments related to the past electoral democratic debauchery, like many brash hired gun commentators on both the left and right who are propagated by the media to perform political illusion for the ill-informed passive thinkers—you are simply wrong. Your attempted psychological stretch to “make nice” and create an alternative narrative for Trump supporters ignores a hard reality that renowned influential intellectuals such Derrick Bell, Joe Feagin, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva have discussed, researched, and proven time and time again—the dynamics of race are almost always present. The intellectual and scholarly fortitude of these men compels me to keenly point to those you wish to defend as guilty of participating in collaborative racism. Decisions to vote based on issues such as the economy, on the surface seem to have validity. But when looking not only closer with a critical eyes, but also to the results of the 2016 election, Mr. Jones and others have overlooked the dark shading of racism. In a Rolling Stone interview he argues that:

…progressives think that that all 60 million people who voted for him have signed on to an Alt-Right, white nationalist agenda…a lot of people held their nose and voted for Donald Trump – despite his bigotry, not because of it.

Thusly, he and his media kinspersons consequently advocate for the construction of “bridges” between progressives and Trump devotees.

I contend: Before building any bridges, the ground must first be examined for sinkholes before the golden keepsake shovel is pulled out for pictures. Before we as a nation move forward, we must first be brutally honest and face the ideological perspective, that even though many Trump supporters do not have a smoldering, smelling KKK hood placed in the backseat of their truck after the latest cross burning, their electoral actions, as argued by previously mentioned scholars, are more likely than not internally effected by a dark white-racist ideology that dates back to the first Dutch-flagged slave ship in 1619 Virginia. Their ability to essentially turn a blind eye to the documented psychological effects of media-covered incidents filled with hateful rhetoric–and at times physical violence toward historically marginalized people such as Muslims, Latinos, and Blacks–proves it so.

I am sure many of you are saying to yourselves, how does this apply to evidence provided by an NBC exit poll that explains “29 percent” of Latinos respectively voted for Trump? The answer is simple. It does not apply. Looking beyond the hyperbole and political spin, political scientists have vehemently argued and provided much evidence which proves the quoted Latino turnout for Trump was were wildly exaggerated. This entry is focused on arguments pertaining to phrases such as “sincere ignorance,” “self-hate,” and “conscientious stupidity” within a much longer argument.

But I digress. In terms of whites in America, many are under the false assumption that you are either racist or not. A little secret—-Racism is not binary. Any race scholar worth his/her salt knows that racism moves across an internal sliding scale. Some are blatant proud bigots who spew out epithets with no remorse, adopted an ideology inferiority toward those on the darker side, and practice national terrorism. Others are your uncles who have Black and Brown co-workers they like (he calls, “the good ones”), but also believe in the slogan “White Lives Matters.” In the end, when confronted with policies and groups that threaten their racial interests, all those whites along the middle to extreme fringe lines of the spectrum safeguard it with white-generated colorblind rhetoric and actions that speak to acts of racial criticism and/or ignore the plight and pains of those Americans of color that they see as potentially threatening their interests. But whites in general have come to the aid of people of color, right? Derrick Bell’s forwarded theory, “convergence interests,” argues that in general whites will support issues pertaining to racial justice for marginalized people of color only when that support “converges” with their interests. This has been proven from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) to the current bipartisan push to change certain drug laws.

In the end, as Texas A&M Distinguished Professor Feagin argues, we live in a country that is infused with our forefathers-generated system of racism (systemic racial oppression) that was created to maintain modern capitalism and white access to power. In order to maintain power over non-Whites, a white rationale was created to drive and rationalize oppressive acts such as slavery. This rationale is wrapped in conscious and unconscious repeated organized and racialized stereotypes and racialized emotions that consequently foster discriminatory acts or racial justice “in-actions.”

The in-action to empathize with the fear and anger of those on the receiving end of the racial hate rhetoric of Trump and his supporters are examples of Feagin’s white racial frame. The absence of care toward the recipients of physical and psychological warfare created by the Hitler-saluting KKK and other white nationalists members make Trump voters guilty of consciously or unconsciously acting in accord to a transgenerational set of white-racist ideas whose ultimate goal is to maintain the historic U.S. racial hierarchy, while ignoring the pains of those historically seen as un-American, as alien.

If we are truly trying to come to an understanding regarding this racialized country or the racial ramifications related to the previous election, we as a country must be honest—Race Matters. Sorry, by ignoring it Mr. Jones, you have become not a facilitator, but another barrier to our country attaining true democracy for all.

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Insiders and Outsiders in Racialized Higher Education

Having a voice rather than simply a seat at the table is a prerequisite for the participation of minoritized faculty, administrators, staff and students in the mainstream of university and college life. Whereas in the past visibility and invisibility of marginalized groups has been the predominant metaphor for inclusive/exclusionary practices, the phenomenon of voice and silencing more accurately represents the actual dynamic of power relations on college campuses. As Shulamit Reinharz of Brandeis University points out, if institutional practices support only the physical presence of marginalized groups without hearing their voices, little change will have taken place.

In a persuasive article, Fred Bonner argues that the academy gives greater weight to the scholarship of white faculty who write about diversity issues than to minority faculty who are not only writing about issues of inequity, but living them. In his words,

The etic outsider perspective should not be allowed to constantly overshadow the authentic claims of the emic insider’s view.

As a graduate student at an Ivy League institution, I was surprised to find that the leading faculty in Asian Studies were all white scholars, while the native Asian speakers held untenured lecturer positions. While the language instructors typically did not hold doctorate degrees, I often found it baffling at the time that the leading lights in the field did not include the first-person perspectives of Asians or Asian Americans. This polarization bespoke a troubling reality in higher education, i.e. the devaluing of the insider’s perspective.

In this two-tiered system, even the pursuit of diversity-related research by minoritized faculty has been viewed as of less scholarly value, particularly in the tenure process. In the Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader, Alvin Evans and I share the perspective of a white chair of kinesiology who sees it as part of her role to have a discussion with the promotion and tenure committee regarding the value of diversity research:

There is just more of an appreciation for what they would call scientific research as opposed to social science research, first of all . . . as much as I have tried to have conversations about that. . . . And then just the valuing of the diversity research agenda, clearly it is not as valued. I think it comes down to method as much as anything, but that is a vicious circle. Because the way you study diversity is different than measuring your blood pressure. The certainty for scientists sometimes in basic science is a false certainty, but they don’t perceive it at all in diversity-related research; there is not a valuing of it. So in the tenure process, I think the chair has to have a conversation about it.

How then can institutions of higher education begin to address the dichotomy between the insider/outsider perspectives? Through case studies and interviews with CDO’s and institutional diversity leaders for a forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift: Comprehensive Organizational Learning Strategies in Higher Education, Alvin Evans and I explore the ways in which organizational learning can serve as a lever for diversity transformation and the creation of more inclusive campus environments.

Our survey of diversity officers conducted for this study highlights one of the inherent contradictions in the insider/outsider perspective– i.e., the expectation that the Chief Diversity Officer, who is typically a member of a marginalized group, should be the sole leader or spokesperson for diversity cultural change on college campuses. The Chief Diversity Officer role is the only top leadership role in which the majority of all incumbents are diverse, with whites comprising only 12.3 percent of CDO’s in doctoral universities. This singular representation suggests a form of symbolism or even token status. As David Owen observes, reliance on minoritized individuals to carry the load on diversity issues has negative connotations, such as 1) only these individuals are responsible for or interested in diversity work, or 2) that these positions are the only executive positions that ethnic/racial minorities are competent to hold. As he explains:

It is manifestly unjust to place the burden of dismantling structures of race and gender privilege that are the consequence of hundreds of years of systemic oppression in the United States on men and women of color and White women.

Such broad expectations for the CDO role conflict with the fact that many CDO’s serve in “at will” status without employment protection. Leading a change agenda without such protection is inherently a risky proposition. As an Afro-Latino CDO in our survey sample indicates:

This role in itself is a risk. I think that anybody that takes on this role must go into role with the understanding that they are at risk all the time. … the reality is that this work challenges power.

Our current study reveals reveal several key themes that are integral to substantive diversity progress at both private and public institutions of higher education. Courageous presidential leadership is a sine qua non of diversity change. Such leadership communicates a sense of urgency about diversity and inclusion, emanates to executive leadership and the deans, and is bolstered by concrete action that provides the resources necessary for diversity change. Take the urgency given to diversity and commitment to resource prioritization exemplified by President Robert Nelsen of Sacramento State University. As he told us:

. . . in our budget this year we set three priorities: priority number one was to make certain that we had enough classes for our students; priority two was diversity; priority three was safety. When you move diversity to the forefront of allocations, it means that with your budget decisions you are making a moral decision about diversity and its importance. That takes some explaining and teaching so that people understand why it is important.

Another important theme emerging from the case studies is that tenured faculty serve as a powerful and sometimes singular voice of opposition in response to regressive external political pressures. Although student activists on many campuses have raised issues of diversity and inclusion, the power to sustain such efforts may indeed rely on the tenured faculty. Their collective voice has been strengthened when expressed in faculty senate resolutions or through the creation of sub-committees or councils to examine often uncomfortable diversity issues.

In his blog post of December 8, 2016, Joe Feagin warns that our country is now facing a social, political and political-economic downward anti-egalitarian spiral. In the face of this treacherous downward political spiral, as Feagin points out, we need to frame the questions and problems of social inequality. This concrete framing demands that we address both the insider/outsider dynamic at play in university power relations as well as how the value of diversity and inclusion is communicated and disseminated across the multi-dimensional contours of a campus ecosystem.

Systemic Racism in Mexico

“Mexico is a racist country,” Federico Navarrete proclaims at the beginning of his recently published Spanish-language book, México Racista: Una Denuncia (Racist Mexico: A Denunciation).

Navarrete, a prominent historian at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known as UNAM, cites some of Mexico’s most cherished ideals as the source of the nation’s racism. Navarrete’s provocative book has generated much discussion in Mexico.

For more than a century, Mexico has prided itself on being a mestizo nation, one where the mixing of Spanish men and indigenous women during the Spanish Conquest produced a blended offspring. This is the story that all Mexican children learn in school.

Navarrete argues that this declaration is not accurate — it is a fable that has been recited for generations.

Navarrete argues that the myth was created as Mexico sought to whiten its population away from its indigenous countenance. There was great pressure on indigenous people to shed their language, culture, dress and lifestyles — to become mestizo. Many, of course, did not do so. Mexicans of African descent were also omitted from the mestizo club as Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, denies its African roots.

Navarrete identifies the numerous venues — family and home, adages, jokes, commercials and the mass media — where racism is propagated on a daily basis. For example, there is a preference for lighter skin within the bosom of the family, and indigenous and dark-skinned people are often the butt of jokes. He argues that when people are accused of being racist, they tend to deny or minimize their racism. People frequently downplay their racist statements or thoughts because they occur in private or are done in jest — no one is hurt.

Particularly noteworthy, according to Navarrete, is that Mexicans claim they cannot be racist because everyone in the country belongs to the same mestizo race. People criticized for their racism also tend to draw attention away from themselves by accusing others of being racist because they are the ones calling attention to race.

Navarrete argues forcefully that racism in Mexico is not merely idle talk. Rather, it is pernicious and noxious. The result of racist talk, actions and behavior among Mexicans is the social exclusion and devaluation of indigenous people and persons of African origin who are seen as not really part of Mexican society — they are the “other,” people who do not count.

Navarrete advances the concept of “necropolitics of inequality,” reflecting great disparity in the probability of death with impunity:

The ease and impunity in which so many Mexicans are murdered, disappeared, tortured and kidnapped signify that the right to life and other fundamental human rights are not distributed in an equal manner among Mexican citizens.

Put simply, the lives of some people are more valuable than those of others. Navarrete lists sectors of Mexican society that are most vulnerable to such death and violence:

marginalized youth, women, persons with nontraditional sexual identities, journalists, peasants whose territories contain valuable natural resources.

A recent study of the 35 countries forming the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, found that Mexico had the second highest level of inequality in 2014. Racism and inequality intersect to marginalize the lives of many Mexicans.

Navarrete asserts that some of the most heinous murders over the last couple of decades in Mexico show the minimization of the lives of Mexicans who live on the margins of society. He draws attention to the impunity and the Mexican government’s lack of concern for the disappearance and murder of the 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in September 2014; the killings of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s and 2000s; the mass murder of 200 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010 and 2011; and the mass murder of 22 individuals assumed to be narcotraffickers at the hands of Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya on June 30, 2014. Navarrete asserts that the indigenous roots, the darker skin and the low socioeconomic standing of these victims made their lives invisible and expendable. He avers that there would be an uproar in the government and mass media, and among the elite if the victims were “beautiful” people from privileged classes.

In the case of the 22 people killed by soldiers in Tlatlaya, Navarrete points out that the Spanish newspaper El País aptly described how much the Mexican government valued the lives of the victims in its headline “Only 12 Words for Each Dead Person,” referring to the government’s terse 273-word announcement of the incident.

This book is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship calling attention to racism in Mexico. The book aims to provoke dialogue in the country to make the invisible visible, and to ultimately better the social, economic and political position of the marginalized.

We can also draw on Navarrete’s book to understand the similarities of racism in Mexico and the United States. They are numerous. In both countries we see the link between the value of one’s life, and the color of one’s skin and one’s socioeconomic standing. In Mexico, people of indigenous and African origins are the poorest, least educated, most marginalized and most invisible in the country; in the U.S., Native Americans, African-Americans and Latinos hold this unfortunate distinction. Over the last several years in the U.S., there has been a surge in the killing with impunity of unarmed African-Americans by police officers. Activists have needed to remind us that “Black lives matter.”

In addition, the racial inequalities found in both countries are long-standing, going back for centuries. In both countries the mainstream vehemently denies the existence of racism. Mexico denies it along the lines of its own brand of colorblindness — “We are all mestizos,” therefore we cannot be racists. The U.S. disavows the existence of racism through its own form of colorblindness — “We do not see color differences in people” — and proclamation of reaching postracial status, where race is no longer important in the lives of people; after all, “we have elected a black president.”

In the end, it is this denial of the role that race plays in long-standing racial inequality that helps perpetuate racial inequality. Society is inculcated with the fables of race and racism that Mexico and the United States exalt. The “normal” and “what we all see” set the stage for people to wear blinders concerning racial matters and racism — namely, that race has nothing to do with one’s societal position. Naysayers who insist that racism exists are discounted as the real racists, with the dialogue coming to a halt. It is important to recognize that racism is not just about individuals but a system — in our institutions, laws, customs and attitudes — that perpetuates racial inequality.

In the U.S. legal system, even with statistical evidence, racial disparities — associated, say, with voting rights, redistricting and the death penalty — are substantiated only when there is a visible smoking gun bearing actual intent to commit racial discrimination. Such conditions regenerate racial inequality.
________________________
Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the co-author of the book Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.
This essay was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News (November 19, 2016).

Elite White Men as The Problem

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are in the news lately, since the new minority president-elect has worked to fill his cabinet. Most are from the right wing of the ruling white male elite, and that elite clearly remains in full power, as it has for centuries in this country.

Indeed, in a forthcoming book Kimberley Ducey and I lay out the many ways in which the elite-white-male dominance system is central to the United States. It is, in effect, a triple societal helix linking together three major systems of social oppression: systemic white racism, systemic sexism (heterosexism), and systemic classism (capitalism). It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these capitalistic malefactors of wealth as a central feature of the often life-devastating economic, social, and political problems we still face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of mass social destruction were women or men of color that the reality of their gender and racial characteristics would be a constant topic of conversation by pundits and politicians, especially in the mainstream media.

Come to think of it, elite white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now much of the world) economic system. They created the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Or should we say, the Predatory Ethic and the Spirit of Exploitation. Arrogant greed and European male dominance seem to be major motivations (emotions) behind the labor and land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, powerful white men created, expanded, and maintained the often genocidal taking of millions of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Americas and the Holocaust-like Atlantic slave trade. Mostly white men created the oppressive realities of modern capitalism and North American slavery, and have made huge profits and wealth off of it, now passed along to their descendants, to the present day.

In recent centuries, elite white men have caused much death and destruction, probably more than any other elite group on the planet. White men are certainly not the only major sources of “democide” and related despotism, but they do seem to lead the list. (Consider not only the many indigenous genocides and Atlantic slave trade, but the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two world wars). While elite white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general than have those of despotic not-white actors.

White men set up the Western legal systems reinforcing modern capitalism and North American genocide targeting millions of indigenous Americans and enslavement of millions of African Americans. They created the dominant white racial frame to explain and rationalize these often savage operations. That white racial frame is a dominant worldview that most white men, especially elite white male leaders, are still operating out of as they today exploit and oppress the world’s majority, the more than 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

And it was these elite white men, together with their white male acolytes, who reinvigorated a strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then “other races,” then animals, etc.). In the North American case, they easily extended this great-chain conceptual system to the racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.

These elite white men, centuries ago and now, generally see themselves as heroic and virtuous, even as they have created great destruction and misery for many people. Ronald Takaki speaks of this view of white men as centered on “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but generally accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s major weaknesses, major errors, and frequent unvirtuousness. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, elite and other white men now often blame the victims of their actions, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who blamed homeowners and moaned about “losers” with troubled mortgages, and not the banks now being bailed out with billions for playing the central role in creating the housing crisis.

So we seem to be moving today to what may well be a second “Great Depression” in this country’s history, yet this time one that is more than just economic, but is social, political, and political-economic in its downward anti-egalitarian spiral. We see omens of this in the array of reactionary elite white men currently being tapped by the minority president-elect Donald Trump (he did not come close to winning a majority of voters) for his cabinet. The arrogant racial, class, and gender framing and related actions, current and future, of these and a few thousand other elite white men have yet to be problematized and examined thoroughly as the major “social problem” of our era. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such thorough racial, class, and gender examination has ever occurred in our mainstream media and other mainstream public discussions in this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The still dominant white racial frame is more than a negative framing of the racial “others” in order to legitimate white racial oppression. At its very center, it positively and strongly accents white virtuousness, especially white male virtuousness. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtuous and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there virtue is exhibited. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism means white men should be at the head of society–that is, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many elite white men that has gotten much of planet Earth into this downward anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian spiral. This lack of virtuousness can be observed in their egocentric racial, class, gender framing — and in their greed, their lack of social intelligence, their lack of foresight, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. For example, a careful report on the “financial crisis and the systemic failure of academic economics” (by mostly European economists) makes quite clear the failure of the (substantially white male) economics profession to research and interpret the last global financial crisis called the “Great Recession.”

Why blame elite white men? Well, the men who have given us global economic crisis after global economic crisis have been overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from leading universities, but not very good at egalitarian and justice thinking or in regard to the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have engaged in—which is for most rarely discussed in mainstream media. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is usually pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men, especially elite white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as normal, in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “abnormal” and “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Thus, in recent economic “recessions,” millions of people have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white male capitalists called-out, targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals whose greed or corruption has stolen or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the mainstream media weekly.

Why blame elite white men? A reason, again, is that elite white men control the major mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force media portrayals of economic, political, and other social crises as situations for which “we are all responsible,” a crisis “no particular group” created. Yet, there are real people, real white male actors, who did in fact create many horrific inegalitarian realities that much of the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant commentaries in the literature on racial matters, Chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which African Americans had come to be defined as a societal “problem”:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? … I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .

So let us now instead define elite white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of contemporary societal oppression, societal inequality, human rights, and human survival.

Then, obviously but quite daunting, the next difficult step is figuring out how to organize and change all this, and thereby create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, one where people of all backgrounds do have major input into and control of their economic and political institutions, and thereby of their lives.

John Brown’s Rebellion

[Today is the anniversary of the day that John Brown was hung for his major anti-slavery actions. This is a repeat of a May 9, 2010 posting on the birthday of John Brown–an important US revolutionary who died, with his black and white colleagues, fighting for the freedom of enslaved African Americans. Brown has gotten more attention from historians in recent years, yet is still little known outside advanced history books. It is time to recover this history for all Americans.]

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece noting that this December 2009 marked the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist educational cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to these abolitionist heroes?

The Myth of the Unassimilable Mexican

Trump’s election has unleashed a flood of animus against Mexican Americans. Within 24 hours of the election, Mexican-Americans across the nation (along with many other racial, ethnic, religious, and LGBTQ groups) were being verbally and even physically attacked. I personally heard several first-hand accounts. A novelist friend of mine tweeted a criticism of Trump and a stranger threatened him with deportation. Similarly sad, demeaning and outright terrifying stories are erupting all over social media and archived by groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The hostility percolates down to the most intimate levels. A lovely man and a positive role model for my son teased him that he was not patriotic enough to use a piece of equipment with an emblazoned American flag but not to worry, they would not deport him. At my friend’s child’s school, 8-year-olds teased their Mexican-American classmates that they could be deported. Parents tsk-tsked but said it was just “kids being kids.” Many perpetrators don’t think they are racist or insist they are just joking. But the message is clear: “you don’t really belong here.”

 

(image source)

 

What we are seeing is the reanimation of longstanding stereotypes—what I call “racial scripts”—that present Mexicans as unassimilable, criminal, even diseased.

We like to describe ourselves as a melting pot nation, based on the idea that immigrants can learn our language, appreciate our culture, and adopt our values and ultimately “become” American by way of assimilation. This had been the case for white ethnic immigrants before, even those who faced much discrimination, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews.

But Mexicans have had citizenship available to them for nearly 170 years, since the Mexican-American War ended. So why aren’t they seen as fully assimilated into US culture? Why can Donald Trump still call them “bad hombres,” rapists, criminals, drug dealers, and disease carriers?

Presumably much of this animus derives from concerns about the undocumented. The Pew Foundation estimates that there are over 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. of whom Mexicans comprise about 53 percent. But we can’t characterize all immigrants as lawless marauders simply because they’re undocumented. Those with criminal records are already being deported. Some of President Obama’s critics call him “the Deporter in Chief” because he’s already deported 3 million immigrants—more than any other president before him.

Many take the position that being undocumented alone qualifies migrants as criminals—they are “illegal.” But being undocumented is also part of our country’s history. European immigrants who came to the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries faced few immigration restrictions. And even when these restrictions were violated, relatively short statutes of limitation limited the power of deportation.

When these laws did change in 1924, the federal government instituted a variety of mechanisms to help make mainly European immigrants “legal,” including suspending deportations and allowing immigrants to pay a small fee to register when they arrived in the United States, providing them access to measures that would ensure their assimilation, while not making these accessible to Mexicans.

Mexican immigrants enjoyed no such opportunities. Instead, they faced increasing regulation through the Border Patrol, established in 1924. Health screenings at the border used race, not symptoms, as the organizing principle. Other forms of control worked outside the law. Like African Americans, thousands of Mexicans were the victims of lynch mobs well into the 1900s, a legacy documented in community and archival records.

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In the 1920s, like now, employers opposed immigration quotas because they limited the availability of low-wage labor. But even this supposed openness to Mexicans nonetheless cast them as alien workers, not as immigrants arriving to the American melting pot. As historian Mark Reisler put it, Mexican Americans are “always the laborer, never the citizen.”

During the Great Depression, when Mexican labor was no longer needed, U.S. repatriation practices sent an estimated one million Mexicans back to Mexico, including some U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

All these practices led to ways of seeing and categorizing Mexicans that reduced them to a type—creating “racial scripts” that characterized Mexicans as “illegal” and diseased.

These scripts persisted even as Mexican-Americans became a permanent and visible part of U.S. society. After the mid-1940s, Mexican-Americans’ second generation numbers eclipsed those of the immigrant generation. Yet, American citizens of Mexican descent were segregated from mainstream America. They could not freely choose where to live because of racial covenants and discriminatory government lending practices that shunted them into segregated neighborhoods.

Children attended “Mexican” schools and were only allowed to swim in public pools the day before the pool was drained. They sat in the segregated section of movie theaters, were not allowed into many restaurants (along with “negroes” and dogs), and were buried in segregated cemeteries—a practice that extended even to veterans.

Many people believe that we of the twenty-first century are past the overt racism and racialization that has plagued the U.S. from its earliest days. Some commentators believe the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action ameliorated the worst of the U.S.’s past wrongs. Thus, they argue, there is no longer a need for a conversation about righting past wrongs. Along these same lines, some people argue that mainstream America’s racial sensibilities have shifted to the point where, as a group, we have become “colorblind.”

Even if as individuals we could succeed in willing ourselves to not see race, or at least to not act on our perceptions, the long reach of past racism in areas such as government lending, private real estate practices, zoning regulations, unequal access to healthcare, and disproportionate exposure to toxic environments is now institutionalized. This kind of structurally embedded racism affects nearly every aspect of our everyday lives, advantaging some of us and disadvantaging others with respect to how and where we live, work, learn, and play, as well as positively or negatively affecting our ability to accrue assets, manage our health, and sustain a good quality of life.

Once these racial scripts are in place, they are extended to all Mexicans, regardless of citizenship status, generations in the United States, educational level, income, language ability or even skin color. One only has to remember when Trump derided US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel who presided over the Trump University class action lawsuit, as unable to be biased because, as a Mexican, the judge had an “inherent conflict of interest” given Trump was “building a wall” along the US-Mexico border, never mind that the judge was born in Indiana.

These scripts filter down to all of us, until someone can “joke” that my fourth-generation American son doesn’t deserve to carry American flag decorated gear. We would all agree that right thoughts lead to right words lead to right action. We must ask ourselves what scripts we are acting out and what they will lead to, regardless of our intent.

 

~Natalia Molina is Associate Dean, Division of Arts & Humanities, and Professor of History and Urban Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Molina’s work lies at the intersections of race, gender, culture, and citizenship. She is the author of award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Script and Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, both published by the University of California Press.

White Supremacy Isn’t a Fad, It’s a System

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With a newly, perhaps unlawfully, elected U.S. president gleefully endorsed by the KKK, we are going to have to get smarter about the way we talk about white supremacy.  I’ve been studying white supremacy for more than twenty-five years. Let me share with a few of the basics that I’ve learned from my research.

White Supremacy is not a “fad”

To begin, white supremacy is not a “fad.” The mannequin challenge is a fad. To suggest that white supremacy is a fad — as Kevin Drum recently did at Mother Jones — is to misunderstand the basic meaning of both “white supremacy” and “fad.”  

(updated 11/28 at 3:18pm) It seems that someone at Mother Jones changed the title of this insidious piece, but the URL still says “fad.”

And, no, Ta-Nehisi Coates did not “invent” the use of the term white supremacy. As even a cursory check of the Wikipedia entry would tell someone with an elementary-school level of intellectual curiosity, “white supremacy” has been used by academics as a term of critique for many decades by scholars writing in the tradition of critical race theory.

Coates did, however, eloquently point out why we have so much trouble with this particular issue:

The shame reflects an ugly and lethal trend in this country’s history—an ever-present impulse to ignore and minimize racism, an aversion to calling it by its name. For nearly a century and a half, this country deluded itself into thinking that its greatest calamity, the Civil War, had nothing to do with one of its greatest sins, enslavement. It deluded itself in this manner despite available evidence to the contrary. Lynchings, pogroms, and plunder proceeded from this fiction. Writers, journalists, and educators embroidered a national lie, and thus a safe space for the violent tempers of those who needed to be white was preserved.

We have a particular gift for embroidering our national lie when it comes to race, but it’s not particularly new.

 

White supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Some have called there is a  “the new white supremacy,” or that it’s experiencing an “awakening,” but white supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States, owned and enslaved people. At least one of those, Sally Hemings, he also raped and forced to bear six his children. Jefferson, of course, was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the worlds “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”but this self-evident truth did not apply to the men and women that he owned. Jefferson pondered whether those currently enslaved should be set free in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he concluded that no, they shouldn’t be, when he wrote:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

In this writing, Jefferson gave voice to what many liberal thinkers of the day believed about the inequality of the races: that white people were inherently superior to black people. That fact seemed obvious to Jefferson. Think this is all old news and no one is advocating for this kind of ideas? Think again.

As I pointed out in Cyber Racism (2009), banner images in regular rotation on the white supremacist portal Stormfront, regularly feature quotes and image from Thomas Jefferson that herald white superiority and connect their political cause to the founding fathers of the U.S.

jefferson at stormfront

Jefferson’s ideas of white supremacy got woven into the very fabric of the nation’s founding documents.  For example, the U.S. Constitution includes something known as the “three-fifths compromise,” which was an agreement worked out between white northern and southern lawmakers about how to count the  enslaved population. The northerners regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted as people, because it would strengthen their power in the newly created Congress. The compromise  allowed a state to count three fifths of each black person in determining political representation in the House. The Three-fifths Compromise would not be challenged again until the Dred Scott decision (1857), which held that “held that a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.”

So, yeah, white supremacy. It’s not new. It’s been part of the U.S. since the beginning.

White supremacy is a system.

White supremacy is a system that ensures some people, who are white, always end up with the lion’s share of resources. Here’s a more academic definition:

White supremacy is…a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”  (Frances Lee Ansley, “White supremacy (and what we should do about it”. In Richard Delgado; Jean Stefancic. Critical white studies: Looking behind the mirror. Temple University Press, 1997, p. 592.

From here, you could investigate any number of areas – wealth, income, educational achievement, occupations, housing, health, incarceration, crime – and find evidence that white people “overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” Here’s just one example in the area of wealth:

(Source: CNN Money, 2016: Why the racial wealth gap won’t go away)

 

There are lots of other examples, too. On white supremacy in housing, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” about the very real, material impact of residential segregation and plunder in the form of subprime mortgages.  On the way white supremacy gets perpetuated in education, listen to the excellent reporting by Nikole Hannah Jones in “The Problem We All Live With.” For an account of the white supremacy in the criminal justice system is Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

These material aspects of white supremacy are justified by systems of thought. For understanding how science is implicated in white supremacy, read Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention. And, for a broad understanding of how white supremacy frames our thinking, read Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame.

 

But, calling the current system “white supremacy” makes me, as a white person, uncomfortable.

 

If you’re white, and talk of white supremacy makes you feel uncomfortable, you might want to do some self-reflection. Why is it that it makes you uneasy?

If you’re feeling especially defensive when talk turns to white supremacy, then you may be experiencing  “white fragility.” Robin D’Angelo coined this term to describe:

“an emotional state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

If you don’t think this applies to you, then you may want to investigate “white identity politics.” There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Typically, when people speak about identity politics – and especially the need to “move beyond identity politics” — they mean the racial identity of those who are Black or Latino. Implied in this use of the term “identity politics” is that white people are exist in a space that is safely removed from the politics of racial identity.

But, as Laila Lalami wrote recently in The New York Times:

This year’s election has disturbed that silence. The president-elect earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.

So, does this mean that all people who share a white racial identity are white supremacists? Not necessarily. Linda Martín Alcoff, in The Future of Whiteness, writes:

White identity poses almost unique problems for an account of social identity. Given its simultaneous invisibility and universality, whiteness has until recently enjoyed the unchallenged hegemony that any invisible contender in a ring full of visible bodies would experience. But is bringing whiteness into visibility the solution to this problem? Hasn’t the racist right done just that, whether it is the White Aryan Councils or theorists like Samuel Huntington who credit Anglo-Protestantism with the creation of universal values like freedom and democracy? In this [book], I show evidence of the increasing visibility of whiteness to whites themselves, and explore a variety of responses by white people as they struggle to understand the full political and historical meaning of white identity today. (read an excerpt here)

Alcoff holds out hope for that there will be more white people, like the ones she documents in her book, who have joined in common cause with people of color to fight slavery, racism, and imperialism, from the New York Conspiracy of 1741 to the John Brown uprising to white supporters of civil rights and white protesters against the racism of the Vietnam War.

Even so, those whites who have joined the resistance are still beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy. That’s the thing about systems. They keep on churning even when we wish they would stop.

What about the people in groups with the  _______  (funny outfits, tattoos, special symbols)? Aren’t they the real white supremacists?

 

There are people who form hate groups, or meet online to discuss the ideology of white supremacy. Sometimes, they wear outfits to signal group membership, like Klan robes or Nazi uniforms or Confederate flag symbols. Sometimes, they get tattoos that reflect their beliefs. According to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 892 hate groups in the United States.

 

(Source: Southern Poverty Law Center)

 

The most common way to talk about white supremacy in the U.S. is to talk about those who identify, through clothing or tattoos, as members of these hate groups.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did extensive research on five of these groups (KKK, David Duke’s NAAWP, the Church of the Creator, Christian Identity, and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance). I analyzed hundreds of their newsletters and movement documents.

What I wrote in White Lies (1997) was that the white supremacist discourse produced by these extremist groups shared much in common with the kind of language that mainstream politicians used, that I saw in commercials created by Madison Avenue executives, in popular culture, and some of what was created by white academics.  I made this argument by comparing the text of extremist white supremacist documents with elements of mainstream culture, including images, like the ones below.

white men buildings men who built america

 

On the left, an image from the newsletter “White Aryan Resistance,” on the right, a recent image from The History Channel. Both carry with them a message of white supremacy – that white men built the nation, and therefore, are exclusively and especially entitled to it in some particular way. In that book, I argued that the extremist images are simply cruder versions of the same ideas that are slightly more polished in their mainstream political and popular culture versions.

Part of what has happened with the Trump campaign to “Make America Great Again,” has been a blending of the crudest possible white supremacist language (e.g., his claim that “Mexicans are rapists”) with a more mainstream appeals to white identity.

Certainly, people who swear allegiance to a Nazi flag or get white power tattoos should be a cause for concern, but so should politicians who threaten to deport millions of people who are not white Christians. Make no mistake, both are engaging in white supremacy.

But, they’re so dapper (or handsome or went to Harvard), they can’t possibly be white supremacists!

The rise of Trump and the far-right he has courted along his rise to power has created a new level of mainstream media interest in writing about white supremacy. Journalists, and their editors, want things that are “new.” That’s part of what makes something “news,” after all, is it’s newness.

So far, it’s not going very well.

 

There is a trend of think pieces on white supremacists that has declared one “dapper,” and another (retrospectively) “handsome,” comparing him to movie idol Robert Redford. This maddening trend has the effect, intentional or not, of normalizing white supremacy. It also reveals more about the white liberal reporters writing this story than it does about their subjects.

In my most generous interpretation of this trend, editors and journalists are trying to offer some “new” angle on the story of white supremacists. If this is the case, then what that means is that they are playing off the idea that white supremacy is relegated to those who are unattractive, uneducated, toothless, and living in a trailer park.  Thus, the “fresh, new” angle they can offer is the opposite of that image. The problem is that it doesn’t serve the reader or the public sphere because, in so doing, it validates their views as legitimate.

In a less generous read, these are predominantly white editors and journalists who are hobbled by the blindness of their own white identity. What the philosopher Charles Mills refers to as “the epistemology of ignorance,” fostered by the system of white supremacy. As white people, immersed in a system of white supremacy, we are like the fish who cannot see or understand water because it is everywhere. I doubt seriously that a journalist and editor who were both people of color would have published pieces on a “dapper” white supreamcist or the “fad” of white supremacy.

Why does understanding white supremacy matter now?

I hope this is obvious, but in case it’s not, let me offer one other important reason that understanding white supremacy now is more important than ever.  In a recent study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education found that 82% of 203 students surveyed believed sponsored content was a real news story.

This is consistent with what I found in Cyber Racism (2009), when I asked young people (ages 15-19) if they could tell the difference between a “cloaked” white supremacist site, and an actual civil rights site. Most could not. So, one young person in my study, reading a white supremacist site that declared “slavery was good for some people,” responded: “well, maybe so, there’s two sides to everything.”

I hope you find this as chilling. We don’t want to go back to debating whether slavery was a moral evil or not, do we? If we don’t, then we have to get smarter about the way white supremacy operates, and how we fight against it.

Saying that white supremacy is a “fad” neither helps our understanding, nor the fight against it, but reveals the epistemology of ignorance that keeps white people from understanding the system we, ourselves, have built.

This Thanksgiving We Stand with Standing Rock

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We’ve written here about Thanksgiving as holiday rooted in oppression. It’s a time when many of us reflect on the history of injustice and oppression experienced by indigenous people in this country.

This week, the dissonance between the Thanksgiving holiday and the violent response to water protectors at Standing Rock is impossible to avoid.

Maybe you’ve been seeing a little bit about #noDAPL on facebook, or you caught the news this weekend about the water protector who may lose her arm, or the deployment of water cannons and mace by police in freezing weather.

Here’s the very basic background: the Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion project that would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Sioux are opposed to it because the pipeline would endanger sacred lands, harm wildlife, and could contaminate drinking water for 15-18 MILLION people if it ruptures.

If you’d like to do a deeper dive on understanding the events, you can use the #StandingRockSyllabus.

And, the president-elect, Donald Trump,  has significant financial ties to the pipeline:He has over $1 million invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company leading the project.

Given all of this and his apparent refusal to place his business investments in a blind trust, it’s hard to believe that these financial ties won’t impact his actions if the stand-off continues through inauguration. (If you want to learn more, you can listen to this great podcast about the history of the water protectors).

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Here are some actions you can take today to stand with the water protectors at Standing Rock and, at the same time, #FightTrump:

 

  1. Sign this petition and this one, to de-militarize the government response to water protectors at Standing Rock and halt the construction of the DAPL.
  2. Donate to the legal defense fund, children’s education at the camp, Veterans for Standing Rock or medical response at Standing Rock.
  3. Search for and share posts using the tags #NoDAPL, #istandwithstandingrock, #rezpectourwater, #standingrock, #dakotaaccess on social media
  4. If you live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Wyoming, Nebraska or Ohio- you may find your local police or sheriff’s department is sending officers to North Dakota. Please call them and ask them to stop supporting militarized police action against water protectors.

 

For more actions like these, go to #FightTrump.

Calls for Respect Following the Election Misguided

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A few days after the 2016 Election, I received statements from both my university and my church encouraging us to have “respect” for others with whom we “strongly disagree.”  Both messages for “unity” were clearly meant to be supportive, but they are misguided. Such messages ignore that the disagreements in question are not over petty partisan politics but are over the profound question of whether or not all people deserve equal human rights.

Differing opinions on the Dakota Access Pipe Line offers a ready example. Those who oppose the project  point to its construction as not only desecrating sacred Native American land but also potentially harming the Sioux reservation’s main water supply. The project has also been criticized for targeting Native lands seemingly to avoid endangering predominantly white towns such as Bismarck. As Time magazine, notes, however, supporters of the project “have shown little interest in accommodating the project’s critics, particularly the protesters on the ground.”

Thus, if it is your opinion that companies should be able to forcibly destroy Native American land and endanger Native American lives for financial gain, and I disagree, that is no ordinary difference of opinion. That is a disagreement, as during the 1830s, over whether or not Native Americans’ land and lives are worth more or less than white Americans’ desire for lucrative business development.

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Differences of opinion regarding gender and sexuality are similarly often less about partisan politics and more about differing beliefs in who deserves human rights. After the release of tapes revealing that Donald Trump bragged about conduct toward women that is legally defined as sexual assault, for example, it was some people’s opinion that his statements were unequivocally unacceptable  and others’ opinion that they were insignificant “locker room talk.”

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Given that sociological research on the use such language in the performance of masculinity has demonstrated that these utterances are “not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence,” the difference of opinion on this issue is fundamentally over whether or not one considers the perpetuation of inequality and violence against women to be acceptable or not.

 

From police brutality to immigration to bathrooms to protests over these and other issues, the disagreements in our government, classrooms, and on social media are decreasingly over topics like those that Reagan and O’Neil debated and are increasingly more like those that characterized Brooks versus Sumner. In other words, as one writer puts it, “This isn’t a political contest – it’s a moral crisis.”

The secular and religious institutions to which I belong both refused to condemn hetero-patriarchal Christian white supremacist viewpoints as wrong. Their calls for “appreciation of individual differences,” encouragement to “try to understand” people with whom we disagree, and above all their admonishment to be “respectful” all combine to reveal that they accept – as equally legitimate – both the view that all people are created equal / a child of God and the view that some people are not. Their language of respect rather than justice continues a long history of prioritizing being “more cautious than courageous” and in so doing demonstrates both institutions’ failure to live up to the standards of integrity, equality, and “respect” for all that they claim to promote.

 

~ Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter. A life-long Roman Catholic, she also engages in dialogues analyzing the ways that organized religions are complacent in and/or contribute to social inequality.  

Understanding the Trump Moment: Reality TV, Birtherism, the Alt Right and the White Women’s Vote

Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.

 

 

But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.

Reality TV

Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV.  “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).

Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,”  the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.

Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,”  Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”

The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.

Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something  about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.”  In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.

Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”

Birtherism

Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.

While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.

Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.

Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.”  These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.

The Alt-RIght

Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right.  In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,”  this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.

As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.

In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:

“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”

As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right.  From Berger, again:

Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”

Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.

In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,

“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”

It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind.  So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”

 

In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it.  In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.

From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.

The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.

More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton

Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.

In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:

(Image source)

That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).

White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men.  As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.

For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.”   In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.

But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).

Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising

The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.

The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps.  But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.

As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.

Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.

This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  This is a mirror.